Saturday, October 27, 2007

Splendid Spuds

Nearly a year ago I wrote a grant proposal for some funding that would allow me to work on my pet project, a look into the food culture in Northern Maine (if this sounds funny to you, you're not alone--every time I tell someone about this I get a weird look). My idea was to head to the Northernmost region of the state, where I'd set about tracking down farmers and cheesemakers and maple sugarers and potato people and get them to talk to me about what they are doing. I'd long suspected that Maine was the place to find interesting folks doing interesting food things, and it felt like time to put the hunch to work.

So in mid-September I headed up to Aroostook County. As a writer, it's hard to avoid the disappointment that comes when you envision a story in your head and then can't, no matter how hard you try, make it be so. It's better to go in expecting nothing and then being pleasantly surprised. So I tried not to expect anything specific, just let the region tell me the story it wanted me to hear. I can't lie--some of the journey was incredibly disappointing. There I was, in one of the richest agricultural regions in the country, sitting down at a restaurant and discovering that, rather than serving green beans from their neighbors down the street, they're buying them frozen, from Sysco. But some of the journey was exciting and encouraging, and I met some farmers who I believe will lead the area in the right direction.

One of those farmers, Jim Gerritsen, spent the better part of three hours with me one morning, just before potato picking was to begin. At his organic farm, Wood Prarie, they harvest the potatoes by hand, a practice almost no one does anymore, since most farmers are farming 700 acres, not the 15 that the Gerritsen's plant (Wood Prarie is a total of 500 acres, but most is given over to forest, with frequent and elaborate crop rotation that protects the soil). It's more time consuming, of course, but the Gerritsen's have chosen to grow heirloom varieties of potatoes that simply cannot be picked by massive harvesters. The local kids get two weeks off of school to help with harvest, says Jim, "They learn more in two weeks here then they do at school."

I was reluctant to leave the farm, but another interview was calling. Before I left, though, Jim's wife Megan thrust two large bags of their early-harvest Yukon Golds at me, her favorite variety. At the airport, my suitcase made weight by a half-pound, and I had a moment where I thought that toting potatoes from Maine to San Francisco was, let's face it, a bit crazy. But last night I had a big bowlful of Jim and Megan's potatoes, mashed with butter, cream, salt and pepper, and thought that I would have been crazy to leave them behind.

Here's the best part--you don't have to make a field trip to Maine to taste these potatoes. The Gerritsen's are incredibly savvy marketers, with a beautiful color catalog and a potato-of-the-month club. As far as I can tell, this is likely the best, most unusual gift for a food lover you'll find this holiday season, and buying a bag (or two, since you'll want one for yourself) of these potatoes is such a good way to say that you support the small farmer. Visit www.woodprairie.com for all the info.